It's simply unacceptable to say the word "r*tarded." It's not manly. It's not funny. It's not cool. What words do I choose to ease the narrative? How do I softly step into a serious discussion of unacceptable language? The answer is I don't. So, I chose to just hit it right out of the gate. It's unacceptable.
It is refreshing to note that from locker rooms, to classrooms, sports events, churches and night clubs it seems that men are stepping up to speak out about unacceptable behavior. One of the most effective campaigns over the last year has been the NFL's NO MORE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Campaign in response to a number of high profile cases highlighted. I'm impressed and encouraged that good men are standing up and speaking out on a variety of tough issues from behavior to the words we choose.
Last spring, the University of Oklahoma witnessed firsthand the purposeful, unfortunate and ignorant, use of the "N" word in a video that took down the university's entire SAE fraternity, and could eventually take down their national organization. Evidence surfaced that those young men may have learned this language at a nationally sponsored (though maybe not nationally condoned) "leadership" conference. I'm not sure we'll never learn how it all transpired. Do I believe that all SAE's are racist? Absolutely not. I personally know good-quality men who are SAE members. But the consequences of a few can not only shake the ground for the whole. Sometimes, it serves to crumble entire foundations.
As someone who works in leadership, speaks about leadership, teaches on leadership, promotes leadership and writes about leadership, I am offended that any such event would model or teach language or actions that would denigrate others -- and pretend to be remotely related to "leadership"
Leaders lift up. Leaders edify. Leaders don't damage the social narrative. Leaders change the social narrative for the better.
I have never participated in or been a member of any Greek organization. But I'm a university administrator in my day job, and as someone who works closely with Greek life on a number of causes and issues, I find it sad and reprehensible that organizations who are doing good, positive things, are then lumped in with other Greeks across the country who made poor choices. Stereotyping is stereotyping. Labeling is labeling. Lumping is lumping, and we just simply shouldn't do it.
Because of the negative press Greek life is receiving on a national scale, I was especially keen last semester to the activities of some of our own Greeks on campus. Greeks I respect and appreciate. Outside my office door a table was set up and decorated, and five or six college men, members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, were hosting a display. I stepped outside to get a better look. "Would you like to help spread the word to end the word?" a young man asks. I'll admit, immediately I thought, this was in reference to the "N" word due to issues in the press. As someone who works in the field of disabilities I should have known better but this event was out of context for me. "What word is that?" --"The 'R'-word sir, you can sign the pledge and we'll display it here." I smiled and listened as I heard these young men engaging other college students in genuine discussion.
The national organization of Pi Kappa Phi is participating in a larger national campaign to "Eliminate the derogatory use of the 'R'-word". According to the organization:
As a group of men who seek to redefine the way society views fraternities and people with disabilities, this is a powerful opportunity to educate those around us on the hurt caused by inappropriately using the words 'retard' or 'retarded.' It further explains that often "people casually use the 'R' word to describe foolish behavior without thinking about how that slur impacts people with disabilities or their loved ones.
I wonder who exactly people are making fun of when they say the R-word, give their best distorted speech impression, or beat their fists to their chest? Is it a post-war veteran now blinded from an IED explosion and suffering from traumatic brain injury while fighting for our country? Is it a brain-survivor who lost abilities during surgery? Is it someone like me with occasional slurred speech due to a recent medical condition? Is it a beautiful teenager who happened to be born with an extra chromosome? A young man who can't express himself without screaming, but probably has a higher IQ than most people you know? The reality is the word has become a general blanket derogatory term for anyone who is different.
People say stupid things. We all know this is true. At some point in our lives we've all said something hurtful or derogatory. More often we do so without intention to cause pain. I cringe when I hear people say the R-word and I always have. But I'm also a licensed special educator. In another decade I ran a camp for people with disabilities. I serve on the board of directors for my national professional organization (AHEAD) promoting access for college students with disabilities, and I serve on the editorial review board for a large disability-related professional journal. So I get it. It's one of my passions.
But there are a lot of people out there who do not get it. Families and young people touched by disability are hurt or bullied by poor word choices daily. Even the entertainment industry continues to peddle laughs at the expense of people with disabilities.
Bullying is still prevalent in our schools and I suppose always will be to some extent. But typically bullying begins with spoken words before ever getting physical. Bullying of students with disabilities is higher than that of typical non-disabled students, but statistics show that if bystanders, friends, or peers intervene, say something or change the narrative of the conversation, bullying is likely to stop.
When people choose hurtful words or derogatory terms, it brings a sort of social validation to the words and to the context for how the words were used. As men, we have the power to pull the plug on the use of the R-word which will hopefully end a great amount of bullying and pain for others. As parents, coaches, teachers, and peers, as teammates, as mentors, as colleagues we have this power within our sphere of influence.
The next time you see a middle-schooler or even a peer use derogatory terms, make faces or inappropriate impressions or gestures related to disability, take that opportunity to talk about it. It all starts with a conversation. A conversation many won't have, unless you bring it up.
Regarding disability, and on behalf of families and individuals who often feel devalued, will you consider spreading the word to end the word?
I signed the pledge. Have you?
6 Quick Actions You Can Take:
1. Be proactive in your sphere of influence. Start a dialogue.
2. Stand up and say something or identify injustices or things that need to be changed.
3. Focus on people's abilities and their value. Everyone has value.
4. Give people opportunities to lead and to do things even if you're concerned about their abilities. Everyone deserves a chance and you might be surprised!
5. Make a mental note that the appropriate term is now "intellectually disabled".
6. Don't say "R*TARDED". Just. Don't.
This article first appeared in The Good Men Project.